Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Date With Dates

Binu Antony has won the Khalifa International Award for Date Palm and Agricultural Innovation, worth Rs 1.75 crore. He talks about his work

Photos: Binu Antony at the award ceremony; the red palm weevil

By Shevlin Sebastian

As his name was called out, at a hall in the Emirates Palace Hotel at Abu Dhabi recently, Binu Antony felt a quickening of his heartbeat and a swelling of pride. He received the 1 million dirhams (Rs 1.75 crore) Khalifa International Award for Date Palm and Agricultural Innovation from Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development of the United Arab Emirates.

There had been more than 200 applications from 37 countries. But Binu, who works as an assistant professor, chair of date palm research, at the King Saud University at Riyadh is a deserving winner.

This is the background of his research: The red palm weevil is the global pest of palm trees, as well as coconut trees. “It lays eggs in the tree,” says Binu. “When the larvae come out, it feeds on the trunk. As a result, the tree will die within a year. This is also the case with the coconut trees.”

Apart from the larvae, when adult weevils attack a tree, they let out a pheromone. “This can attract the other weevils in the area,” says Binu. “Soon, there will be a mass attack.” Through his research, Binu was able to identify a gene which is used for smelling and is located in the antennae. Thereafter, Binu, along with his team, invented a method to knock it down, so that the insects cannot smell the pheromones. In this way, a mass attack is avoided.

To do this five-year-long research, a Saudi national funding agency provided Binu with a four million riyal grant to set up a top-notch laboratory. “I have used the latest equipment,” says Binu. “It has become a Centre of Excellence in the University. We have many students from all over the world.”

Not surprisingly, soon after the award ceremony, the University held a felicitation function. And a happy Rector of the University Prof. Badran Bin Abdulrahman Al-Omar told Binu he would offer more support in terms of funding. Binu also received words of appreciation from his collaborators in Japan, Sweden and France. But, surprisingly, the Malayali community in Riyadh did not react at all and so, too, the people in Kerala. “I am not a film star, cricketer or a politician,” says the Muvattupuzha-born Binu, with a smile. “Not many are interested in scientific awards.”

But Binu does not mind. He enjoys his work and is grateful for his support system. “I have to thank my wife Dhanya, who handles the daily running of the house, so that I can concentrate on my work,” says Binu, who is father to Aadithiya, 12, Arav, 8, and two-year-old Annika.  

Incidentally, it was his stellar academic credentials which enabled him to tread new ground in his work. Binu got his Ph.D, with a specialisation in insect biotechnology from the University of Kerala in 2005. This thesis enabled him to win the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for outstanding doctoral research in agricultural and allied sciences from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

Apart from that he has done a three-year post-doctoral stint in Tokyo University, as well as Lund University in Sweden. He has also won nine fellowships, with the latest, in May, being awarded by the Royal Entomological Society of London. Binu has also published more than 25 papers in top-notch publications and regularly takes part in seminars internationally.

Interestingly, nobody from his family is into science. His own father is a businessman. But Binu got interested in biotechnology when he was in college and became fascinated.

Finally, when asked for tips to give young researchers, Binu says, “Have passion for your specialty and work very hard.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

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